1) The first 15 games after the break, into the trade deadline, should answer a lot of the remaining questions about the Pirates.
The Bucs open up the second half with a very difficult stretch of 15 games in 14 days. To make things even tougher, the first ten games are on the road starting with three in Cincinnati, followed by four in Washington, concluding with three in Miami. They finish the 15-game stretch off at home against the ML-best Cardinals. The five-game series includes a Tuesday late-afternoon doubleheader and culminates on Thursday, August 1, the day after the trade deadline.
After the Cards, the Pirates will play three more at home against Colorado before getting a day off. At that point the Bucs will only have 51 games remaining.
2.) Those early games against division foes Cincinnati and St. Louis are important, but the games against Washington may be even more crucial to the playoff chase.
The Pirates are going to come out of the All-Star break on Friday with a 56-37 record, a game behind the Cardinals in the NL Central and four games up on the Reds. After 93 games last year, the Bucs were 53-40 and only a half game behind the Reds for the division lead. This year, however, the Pirates are in a significantly better position.
Last year the Bucs had a three-game lead over the Dodgers for the second wild card spot which had been added for the first time. In addition, the Cards, Mets, Diamondbacks, Brewers and Marlins were all within six games of the Dodgers. Six teams were within ten games of the Pirates.
This year the Nationals occupy the Dodgers spot as the team closest in chase for the second wild card spot, but the Nats are only 48-47, nine games back of the Pirates and ten in the loss column. The Dodgers and Phillies are 0.5 back. (The Nats and Dodgers open the second half with a three game set in Washington starting Friday.) The rest of the NL is essentially out of it, barring a miraculous run. The competition for the second wild card spot is much diminished this year and the contenders are starting much further back than they did a year ago. If the Pirates are able to split or take three of the four games in Washington, they could solidify a double-digit lead on the Nats with about 60 games to go. That is a big cushion. If the Bucs played .500 ball the rest of the way, the Nats, and presumably the other contenders, would have to play .666 baseball the balance of the season to catch up.
3.) Making the playoffs would be a great achievement for a team that hasn’t been over .500 in 20 years, but there is a huge advantage to winning the division.
The baseball playoffs are a crapshoot. 30 teams play 162 games over the course of a season and the difference between the best and worst record is typically only 30-35 games. In a seven-games series in the playoffs anything can happen. Before last year, eight teams went into the playoffs with an almost equal 12.5 percent chance to win the World Series.
But now, a team has to make it to a seven-game series, and that is going to be particularly tough for the three teams in the NL Central. Adding the second wild-card team not only keeps more teams in the playoff chase longer, it adds a massive premium to winning a division title.
Going into the second half the Cardinals are one up on the Pirates and five up on the Reds. Here’s how the head-to-head match-ups and schedules break down the rest of the way:
Pirates-Cards: 14 games remaining, eight in Pittsburgh, six in St. Louis. Last game head-to-head in St. Louis Sunday, Sept 8. Season series to date: Pirates 3-2
Pirates-Reds: Nine games remaining, three in Pittsburgh, six in Cincinnati. Last game head-to-head in Cincinnati Sunday, Sept 29, last game of the season. Season to date: Pirates 6-4
Cards-Reds: 10 games remaining, three in St. Louis, seven in Cincinnati. Last game head-to-head in Cincinnati Sunday, Sept 5. Series to date: St. Louis 6-3
Cardinals Scheduling Note: Have a stretch from August 26-Sept 8 where they will play 13 straight games against the Pirates and Reds.
Reds Scheduling Note: After opening the second half with three against the Pirates, the Reds embark on a West Coast swing of 11 games in 10 days from July 21 into the trade deadline.